'Bashir Lazhar' teaches strength in loss at Barrington Stage Company


PITTSFIELD -- He has come from Algeria to Montreal. He has come to make a place for his wife and children. He is alone.

Bashir Lazhar, the man at the center of Evelyne de la Chenelière's eponymous play, is alone in a strange land. And Juri Henley-Cohn will play him alone on stage. The one visible man among a roomful of invisible people, he calls them into being around him -- talking with children, with teachers, with the lawyer who is working to win him protection as a political refugee.

"Bashir Lazhar" has just opened Barrington Stage Company's summer season and will play through June 6. Lazhar has come from a place where talking politics at the coffee shop can be called sedition -- can get people killed. And now he is teaching a sixth-grace class that has suddenly lost a teacher.

Intent, laughing, angry -- shaking with the absence of his family -- he defends his new students, as he relives nights in the cafe at home, helping his wife to grade papers for her classes. My love, my love -- we don't know how to love here. I'll love you better elsewhere, or at least I want to know how love is elsewhere, how people go about loving when they have nothing to fear.

In this country, we debate in diners, we protest on street corners, we write letters to the editor and drown each other out at town meetings, without thinking twice. Imagine a man who has never voted in the local middle school and has come 4,000 miles because he wants to.

"I want to be able to say whatever I want, wherever I want," he says in the play. "I want to be able to shout it out loud. ... Be forever and ever shouting out new and original thoughts. Shout them out to anyone who will listen. Anyone who will agree with me or disagree, argue with me, shout them out, and have there be no repercussions. Just let my ideas flow."

What feels ordinary here may be fatal in some parts of the world, Henley-Cohn said, and Algeria has gone through chaotic change in the last decades.

Henley-Cohn, known on stage and screen in New York and L.A. and a veteran of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, knows Bashir Lazhar's story in many ways from the inside.

Henley-Cohn's wife's family has come here from Korea, and his father came from Poland as a small boy. Henley-Cohn's grandfather came over first, as Lazhar does, to make a place for his family.

As he got to know Lazhar, Henley-Cohn talked with his father about that experience. He asked why his grandfather had left his family in Poland and come here by himself. His father answered him: What are you going to do -- show up at 42nd Street with a wife and two children -- without a place to live, without a job, without food, without a fridge to keep it?

The play has resonated for him, he said, from the beginning.

"This is a bond we share," said Shakina Nayfack, director of the play and associate producer of the Blatt Center for BSC, looking back on his days of directing Chicana theater in southern California.

"We all have that teacher that saves our lives," Nayfack said.

He remembered a high school teacher who let him spend quiet time with her when other students treated him harshly, and who kept him in school when he wanted to give up on it. Henley-Cohn remembered the second-grade teacher who made him feel included, made him feel as bright as he could be. He went on to graduate from Harvard.

A teacher can teach you how to love learning, he said, so that you love it, and go on learning, all your life.

Imagine a Berkshire sixth-grade class facing a substitute teacher who takes out a well-read copy Balzac's "The Wild Asses' Skin," one he has carried 4,000 miles, and tells them to take dictation as he reads.

Imagine him reading, and getting through to them, how it feels to be a young writer, just out of college and new in the city, living on a shoe-string and high on doing what he wants to do -- "in an inaccessible sphere in the very midst of tumultuous Paris, a sphere of toil and silence ... like a chrysalis, I was building a tomb around me in order to be reborn in brilliance and glory."

Imagine his voice, bare and quiet, as he hears the last words as he is reading them and realizes what they mean to him: I was going to risk dying so as to live.

If you go ...

What: 'Bashir Lazhar'

Where: St. Germain Stage, Barrington Stage Company, 26 Linden St., Pittsfield

When: Through June 8,
Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m.,
Sunday at 3 p.m.
Thursday, June 6, 4 p.m.

Information: (413) 236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org


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